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North Korea May Have Restarted Nuclear Reactor at Yongbyon

Yongbyon Site
A DigitalGlobe image shows steam rising from a building containing turbines and generators powered by the 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon facility on Aug. 31, 2013. Source: DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

North Korea may have restarted a nuclear reactor capable of producing enough plutonium to make one atomic bomb every year, a U.S. research institute said.

Satellite imagery taken Aug. 31 shows steam rising from a building containing turbines and generators powered by the 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, North Korea’s main nuclear complex, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies said today in an e-mail.

North Korea said on April 2 it would restart all facilities at Yongbyon, including the reactor mothballed under a six-nation disarmament deal in 2007, for producing energy and “bolstering up the nuclear armed force both in quality and quantity.” South Korea’s National Intelligence Service declined to confirm the institute’s findings today.

“North Korea now appears to have put the reactor into operation,” the institute said in the e-mailed analysis. The reactor “is capable of producing six kilograms (13.2 pounds) of plutonium a year that can be used by Pyongyang to slowly increase the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile.”

Signs of activity at the Yongbyon site, north of the capital Pyongyang, add urgency to efforts to stop the North from advancing its nuclear weapons programs. In February, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, prompting the United Nations to tighten sanctions against the country.

“Would there be smoke without fire?” South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said at a briefing today in Seoul, when asked about the satellite imagery.“Let’s leave it at that.”

Testing Reactor

The steam spotted at the Yongbyon site indicates the “North Koreans are testing the reactor before operations can go into full swing,” No Hui Cheon, a professor of nuclear science at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, south of Seoul, said by phone today. “If steam comes out steadily, that’s a sign of full operation.”

International talks aimed at dismantling the North’s nuclear arms programs through aid haven’t been held since late 2008. Glyn Davies, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, on Sept. 10 ruled out a quick resumption of the six-party talks unless the North showed signs of reversing its nuclear programs. The talks also involve South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

Restarting Yongbyon would be “serious” and a “misstep,” Davies told reporters in Tokyo today.

‘Serious Concern’

In December last year, the North launched a long-range rocket that the U.S. and South Korea called a ballistic missile. Earlier this year, North Korea threatened nuclear strikes against the U.S. and South Korea in retaliation for the allies’ annual joint military drills.

“Although the latest news is a worrying development, it remains unclear whether the country can deliver its nuclear weapons via missiles,” Rebecca Jackson-Young, North Korea analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said in an e-mail.

Kim Jong Un’s regime vowed earlier this year to pursue the twin goals of economic and nuclear development. South Korean President Park Geun Hye dismissed the policy as unrealistic in a speech to the U.S. Congress in May.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said in early August that North Korea may have doubled the size of its uranium-enrichment facility at Yongbyon, deepening international concern about a second source of fuel besides plutonium to build weapons. North Korea said its uranium enrichment was for producing energy.

The developments at Yongbyon coincide with recent signs of improving relations between the two Koreas. North Korea last month agreed to restart its industrial complex jointly run with South Korea and to resume reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

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